3: Whistling in the (greenhouse gas) light

The UK government has now given way to pressure from other member states of the European Community on action to resolve perhaps the most awesome problem ever posed for mankind – the natural limits on greenhouse gas emissions that the earth can support.

It has agreed to bring forward the date for lowering carbon dioxide emissions to their 1990 level by the year 2000 instead of 2005. Its change of heart signals further recognition of the significance of global warming for the future health of the planet and it foreshadows action on a wide range of fronts to meet the new target.

Success has to be achieved in the face of another of its targets, namely achieving a growth rate in GNP of over two per cent per annum, that is a rise of nearly 25 per cent by the end of the decade. Given the fairly close link between GNP and fossil fuel use, the reduction in emissions seems ambitious. But is it enough?

In 1990, the climate scientists attached to the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a unanimous report stating that to stabilise the world’s climate – a very different proposition to that of stabilising carbon dioxide emissions at their 1990 level – a reduction of 60 per cent in these emissions would be required. What it did not say is that the reduction will clearly have to vary according to a principle other than one of average. People in the Third World contribute far less as their consumption of resources in any lifetime is often only one twentieth of that in the affluent West. On a per capita basis – and there are neither moral grounds nor political prospect of obtaining international agreement on any other basis – the UK will have to cut its emissions by over 90 per cent. With a target date conservatively set 50 years from now, a five per cent annual reduction from now is needed, which is a very tall order. But the rate rises to six per cent if we do not start, as the Community intends, until 2000.

What does such a reduction mean for the typical UK household when related to its current annual average emissions of about 27 tonnes? Clearly, the household ‘ration’ of less than one-tenth of the current level will only stretch to the most essential of energy-intensive activities. At present, its share for electricity generation alone is four times as much as this, and for transport, mainly car use, twice as much.

As yet, governments have failed to recognise that economic growth and consumerism in the forms which we have witnessed over many decades and which politicians believe to be the primary means of improving public welfare are incompatible with responsible stewardship of the planetary environment.

If world leaders fondly imagine that the current world recession, as measured by the conventional indicator of GNP, is alarming, they need to prepare themselves for a far more catastrophic outcome. When the penny drops, the sound will be deafening. It is clear that the public will have to be called upon to make changes entailing substantial rather than modest alterations to the lifestyles they have only been able to adopt because the ecological implications have been largely ignored.

Most of us like to believe that we care about the future. Consider then being answerable for our actions – or inaction – to our grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren if we do not now set about drastically lowering our material standards of living in order to be able to pass over the planet to them in at least as wholesome a state as we had it passed on to us. The history of this century, and the daily viewing on television of the tragic consequences of economic and ecological failures, for instance in Africa, would make the response ‘We did not know what was happening’ wholly inadmissible.


Originally published in Social Inventions (Journal of the Institute for Social Inventions), Vol. 26, 1992. (The need to alert ourselves to our inexcusably inadequate action to prevent climate change.)

This article is based on the author’s paper The incompatibility of the objectives of economic growth and the protection of the global environment which was given at the Leeds Environment Centre earlier in the year.

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